Pablum – The Silent Killer

April 3rd, 2011

“Pablum,” he said.

I’m fairly proud of my vocabulary, but I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what that word meant.  “It’s mush,” he said, “It’s tasteless, and there’s nothing there to chew on.”

I was at Guidant Corporation, and we were being acquired.  He was a VP in charge of integrating the two companies’ sales forces, and he was describing the messages we were producing to educate our employees.

We then had a conversation about whether these messages were even worth publishing.  Would we lose credibility by saying nothing real and nothing new?  Would people be less likely to pay attention next time, assuming we had nothing meaningful to say?

That was 2005.  In the intervening years, I’ve discovered how rare it is to have a leader ask such questions, to demand more than safe and mushy messaging.  Many leaders navigating their organizations through disruptive change don’t have that same instinct, and end up communicating either Pollyanna messages (“Guys, isn’t this great?  The future is sunshine and roses!”) or messages that are so general, no one understands how the changes will affect them.  In those organizations, the messages are usually very well-written– but good writing and good communication are two different things.

Fast forward to 2011…

Jodi Underwood, the Director of HR at Citizens Energy Group in Indianapolis, helped me develop a model for communicating effectively during times of change:

The model has two axes.

The x-axis reflects a message’s level of authenticity.  Oftentimes, leaders assume that “safe” messaging is the safer route, because they can avoid controversy and tough topics.  But it isn’t safer.  “Safe” messages generate boredom and disengagement, which are riskier in the long run.

The y-axis reflects a message’s level of specificity.  Sometimes during an organizational change, leaders can’t be as specific as they’d like, because the details just haven’t been worked out yet.  In those cases, I advise leaders to start figuring out the details that matter to stakeholders, as quickly as possible.

Should leaders then wait to communicate until all the details have been hammered out, and politically it is feasible to speak more plainly?

Absolutely not.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and people will fill the communications void with all kinds of creative scenarios, none of them good.  Communicate now, with what you have, but always fight for more authenticity and more specificity.

The gravitational pull of planet Status Quo drags us up, and to the left, on the model.  We must actively invest energy into moving down and to the right.  But it’s worth the investment.  Real and detailed messages stimulate new ideas and questions in people’s minds.  They open up lines of communication and invite others into a dialogue.  They drive deeper engagement, which leads to higher levels of commitment and less resistance to change.

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6 Responses to “Pablum – The Silent Killer”

  1. This is the part that makes me pause:

    Should leaders then wait to communicate until all the details have been hammered out, and politically it is feasible to speak more plainly?

    Absolutely not. Nature abhors a vacuum, and people will fill the communications void with all kinds of creative scenarios, none of them good. Communicate now, with what you have, but always fight for more authenticity and more specificity.

    I’m reading this as, “tell people whatever you happen to know, even in the middle of a change’s evolution.” That may not be what you’re trying to say, but it reminds me of times when I’ve been in a project, gotten the word out (truthfully, as I knew it at the time), and then had things change. Then I’m stuck with going back, trying to get the word revised, and worrying that someone won’t see the update. I’d advise against S & A, at EVERY moment of the process, but would certainly advocate them once decisions are made and finalized. I don’t think that leadership communication should become Twitter. That is to say, a real-time stream of “facts.” I’d imagine information flowing at that rate would actually cause confusion and fear after one or two updates. Again, once a path is finalized, yes. Communicate THAT to the people who’s lives will be affected.

    • I believe the model is a good tool for “let’s think about how to communicate the messages”. My experiences have demonstrated that it is more important to over communicate during change efforts. Tell the employees what you know and what you don’t know yet. Give them bad news as well as good news.

      Second, the communications steering team should listen as well as tell. The team should consist of a vertical slice of the organization(S).

      Third, there is now perfect way of communicating: make the messages understandable, newsworthy, and frequent.

      Lastly, every leader, manager and supervisor needs to have frequent 1-on-1 conversations about the changes with every employee. The best communications happen in a conversation.

  2. Chip,

    Can I come and work for you? I need to get smarter!!

  3. Nicely done, Chip. Very relevant to our situation. So much communication during transition is managing the presentation of unknowns, which runs the risk of becoming bland, pacifying prose rather than effective communication. If my job is to manage effective communications and the hand I’m dealt is fuzzy info and variable or dependent timeframe, my communications plan had better deal with the concrete info I do have: how to appropriately set realistic expectations in a changing environment, recognizing the impact of attitude and adaptability during transition, and how to classify and process information received during transition. To the point of the graphic, our best work is done in keeping our audience and stakeholders engaged.

  4. Love it! Nothing like a two-axis diagram to put the situation into perspective.

  5. Chip,
    This rings true with my experience in managing through our Division’s Merger and Acquision, TWICE.
    People really did appreciate knowing what I (we) could share and that we were working to get answers to the things that were most on their minds.
    Tom

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